Commentary: Working together on energy needs

June 29

The proposed Environmental Protection Agency rules that would cut carbon pollution significantly by 2030 come at a time when elected officials in the Washington area have been focusing on the need to upgrade the region’s energy infrastructure.

The EPA’s proposed rule would help meet the long-term goals our regional leaders have already set through the National Capital Region Climate Change Report and Action Plan. These lay out our need for reliable, cost-effective energy systems that also do not degrade our environment. Doing the right thing on these important issues doesn’t need to pose a conflict.

To get a sense of where the region is now, utility representatives recently met with the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ elected officials. They told how more than $5.5 billion in investments will be needed over the next five years to upgrade electric power lines and natural gas pipe systems to improve performance and reliability. This investment is needed to help the region meet new goals for sustainable growth, including the need for energy efficiency and use of cleaner sources of energy.

Our region already has made extensive investments in our energy infrastructure. Our electrical distribution system is valued at $10.2 billion, with 75,000 miles of distribution lines — more than the lane miles of our road system — and is part of a broader electrical network, which is often referred to as the largest machine in the world. The natural gas system is worth $4.5 billion and has 15,000 miles of distribution pipelines connecting gas supplies to our homes and businesses.

Our region imports two-thirds of the electrical power it uses, mostly from coal and nuclear energy. The one-third generated within the region comes from 19 power plants using coal, natural gas, fuel oil and waste. Coal use is decreasing because of economics and environmental considerations and is being replaced by electricity generated from nuclear and natural gas.

Because of fracking, a method of extracting gas from shale rock formations, the region now gets most of its natural gas from neighboring states such as Pennsylvania and West Virginia, replacing supplies from the Gulf of Mexico.

This shift comes as the region has outpaced the country in reducing its energy use between 2005 and 2011. While the average American is using 8 percent less energy, residents in D.C. and Virginia lowered their energy use by 11 percent, and residents in Maryland did so by 12 percent.

Area residents also pay less on average for energy. For example, each person in the District on average spends less than $3,900 annually for energy. The national average is more than $4,400. This is caused by improvements in energy efficiency, more use of transit and other fuel-efficient transportation, lower electricity rates, and the region’s concentration of businesses that use less energy than manufacturing-heavy areas.

At COG’s recent meeting, Pepco and Dominion both noted their work to improve reliability and efficiency through technologies such as smart meters and putting electrical lines under ground, and the importance of having multiple energy sources because supplies and prices can fluctuate over time. Washington Gas summarized its capital plan to upgrade its infrastructure, and said more than 1,500 miles of mains have already been replaced in the District, Maryland and Virginia.

These upgrades aren’t cheap, but they also bring us benefits. They are essential to meet the energy needs of a region expected to grow by 1.6 million people over the next three decades. Local governments will play a key role in ensuring that the plans and actions of utilities and state regulators meet our goals for a prosperous and sustainable region.

Stephen Walz is director of environmental programs at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. This commentary is adapted from a post on the Region Forward blog.

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